Composting Estate seminar: Steven Ball and Louise Fowler 13 December 2019

A series of seminars examining processes and materials of composition and decomposition of site and place.

Room A002 Central Saint Martins 
10.30am  – 1.00pm
13 December 2019

Steven Ball
Amateur Archaeology

‘Amateur Archaeology’ follows on from ‘Of the Estate’, my presentation at Approaching Estate, which discussed the painting practice of my late uncle Terry Ball, who painted landscape views of the St. Helier council housing estate in South London where he lived from early childhood to late in life. His paintings were made from around the mid 1950s to the late 1990s, after which he moved from the estate. ‘Amateur Archaeology’ explores other aspects of Terry Ball’s life and work, narrating as a work in progress a form of ‘amateur personal archaeology’. Through processes of excavation and reconstruction, making connections using available material (published, unpublished, archival, personal, and memorial), I reflect upon Terry Ball’s professional relationship with archaeological practices, and their personal resonance in my own life and creative practice.

Starting back on St. Helier Estate, as the site of some of my own earliest experiences of the specificity of place, I trace Terry Ball’s professional career as an artist making reconstruction drawings of ancient monuments for what was to become English Heritage, from the 1969 until the late 1990s. His processes, methodology, influences, and predecessors, are outlined with extracts from writings about his work, reproductions of his reconstruction drawings and paintings, how these are situated in relation to the work of archaeology, as well as how elements from his personal life occasionally find their way into his otherwise ‘scientific’ approach.

I then move briefly back to the St. Helier Estate to examine a hitherto unnoticed formal similarity between a digital ‘panoramic’ image of St. Helier Hospital that I made around 2000, and one of Terry’s paintings of the same subject.

I then look further back in historical time, to examine Terry’s life and work as a drawing assistant to renowned archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon in the Holy Land, starting in Jericho in 1957 and ending in Jerusalem at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1967. This centres on a collection of his black and white photographs, now donated to the Palestine Exploration Fund archive in Greenwich, photographs taken during his time in the region. I examine his photographic representation of the landscape and archaeological dig sites, which often take the form of panoramic photographic montage, reminiscent of the later painting of St. Helier Hospital mentioned earlier above. I describe what I have unearthed about his time in the region, his relationship to the place and his work, how the 1967 Israeli incursion that precipitated the Six Day War, was to hasten his exit from Jerusalem, as well as speculate around how he might have arrived in the position of working with Kenyon.

I end by relating how I was given a poetry notebook of his after his death, how some of the contents of the notebook seems to, repeatedly and through many reiterative variations, refer to his experience working as a stonemason in Jerusalem, and how I transcribed these passages to form a lyric that I have recorded as a song as part of my song writing and recording practice.

Louise Fowler
Once upon a time in the city...

The ‘once upon a time’ of fairytale exists outside conventional, historical time. It sits above, upon, any time, and at the same time it exists alongside all time. It is a time of possibility, where the usual rules do not apply, and imagination might take flight. 

The chaos of once upon a time appears to be the opposite of the rational, ordered time of archaeology. 

But varied perceptions of time, including time in its more imaginative forms, run through the practice of archaeological excavation. Gavin Lucas outlines several, including those which are central to the methods of archaeological fieldwork, namely abstract and quantified time, and time that is constituted by events (Lucas 2005). Kitty Hauser discusses how the concept of a multi-temporal present, which she describes as an ‘archaeological’ imagination inspired work by British neo-Romantic writers and artists of the mid 20th-century (Hauser 2007). Shannon Lee Dawdy writes of how imagined pasts are entangled with the material present in New Orleans, drawing on Walter Benjamin’s concept of aura (Dawdy 2016). Inspired by these writers and others, here I revisit some of the photography and records created in the space-time of an archaeological excavation that took place on a construction site in the City of London several years ago. 

The excavation employed the methods most commonly used by archaeologists in Britain, which prioritise time that is made of events through a concern with what archaeologists call stratigraphic context. A stratigraphic context is a physical trace, which can be seen and felt in the present, of an action carried out in the past. To properly excavate and record a context, the archaeologist must not only be able to define and record its physical limits in space, but also to imagine or deduce the action in the past that produced such a trace in the present. Contexts are excavated in chronological order, in order to understand and record their relationships as an interrelated sequence of events, and a drawn and written record is created. But this way of thinking about time is not the only way that it is experienced during the process of excavation, which also incorporates the rhythm and demands of structured working days with associated deadlines, and which also requires the archaeologist to make  imaginative leaps to bridge gaps between past and present. These include moments when the archaeologist physically reproduces a past action in the present (the digging of a pit, or the cleaning of a hearth for example), actions which can seem to ‘collapse’ together past and present, creating the experience of a kind of timelessness that is accessible through a historical and linear understanding of time, but which sits outside it. This collapse is also visible in the archive, which contains records of the actions of both archaeologists and events that took place in the deeper past. 

Dawdy, S. L. 2016. Patina: A Profane Archaeology

Hauser, K.  2007. Shadow Sites: Photography, Archaeology, and the British Landscape 1927-1955
Lucas, G. 2005. The Archaeology of Time  

Louise Fowler is an archaeologist with MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology).

Information about the full series: